What to See in Semporna, Sabah: A Glimpse of Bajau Sea Nomads’ Way of Life

Bajau children rowing towards our boat asking for goodies or any other offerings. This is a harmless practise they’ve developed since tourists started flocking their settlement. They are not beggars, so treat them with respect. Image: Naqiuddin

Visiting Semporna, Sabah has been one of the biggest contenders on my travel list.

This comes especially after coming across stories about the amazing Bajau sea nomads’ legendary abilities to free dive underwater for as long as 13 minutes at depths of about 200 feet to hunt for fish

Being able to get close to such an amazing community who practically engineered their genetics to adapt to life at sea after hundreds of years, amid out-of-this-world views of Semporna islands is definitely a big lure for aspiring explorers like myself.

Bajau children on a small handmade boat at a settlement off the shores of Bodgaya Island in Semporna. Image: Naqiuddin

Other than stilt huts built atop coral reefs, the Bajau also live in these small handmade boats. The only reason for them to set foot on land is for business. A 2010 study by Universiti Malaysia Sabah found Bajau sea nomads would start feeling ‘land sick’ if they spent over a night on solid ground.

I finally found myself in Semporna recently, for an event called Regatta Lepa, an annual state-wide celebration that pays homage to the lepa (a traditional single-mast sailing boat of the Bajau).

A man and a child ride on a boat amid the colourful ‘lepa’ vessels in the background at Semporna Waterfront. Image: Naqiuddin

My initial thoughts of having to go through hours-long boat rides to some deserted islands to find the elusive community were dismissed (pardon my ignorance) when I learned that the Semporna Bajau majority totalling 76,000-strong had been congregating the Regatta Lepa at Semporna Waterfront for the past 25 editions!

The event was so big that highways and roadsides, even houses, were adorned with colourful sambulayang (sail on lepa). Needless to say, the 40-minute drive from Tawau airport was filled with oohs and aahs.

Endless Beauty in Tun Sakaran Marine Park

After a quick lunch, I got on a boat and headed off for Bohey Dulang, an island within the gazetted Tun Sakaran Marine Park. Other islands in the park include Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Pom Pom, Sibuan, Timbun Mata and Mataking.

While the hike towards the 353-metre Bohey Dulang Peak promises fantastic views the crater island formed by the remnants of an ancient volcano, my group was denied access to the trail because it was slippery following an overnight rain. Nevertheless, views from the ground was still mesmerising — paradise at home. Bohey Dulang is also a hot spot for bird-watching as the island plays host to black-naped fruit doves, owls, hornbills, partridges and babblers.

The walkway towards Bohey Dulang Island. You can see plenty of corals and fish from here thanks to the clear waters. Image: Naqiuddin
Beautiful scene at Bohey Dulang. Who says you have to travel far for a slice of paradise? Image: Naqiuddin

Divemaster Alexander Ho, who runs a scuba shop and tour Semporna Scuba, said while the marine park doesn’t allow marine life watching tours, the healthy ecosystem is teeming with life including sprinter dolphins as well as pilot and killer whales heading to Australia between the months of April and May.

“Depending on your luck, if we spot any, we’ll just dive right in,” he exclaimed.

Meeting the Bajau Sea Nomads of Semporna

The next stop was the one I’d been waiting for: Bajau settlement off the shores of Bodgaya Island.

Wooden house on stilts off the shores of Bodgaya Island. Image: Naqiuddin
A Bajau man checking his fishing gear at his home on the sea. Image: Naqiuddin

It was just like in the stories. Wooden houses on stilts amid beautiful scenery as far as the eye can see. As we got closer, a group of children on tiny boats approached us asking for goodies. As their settlement has seen quite a number of tourists, this is just a harmless routine they’ve picked up. Be sure to pack some snacks, sweets, anything you feel like donating. If you don’t have any, they won’t haggle for anything. Respect them as they respect you entering their space.

Bajau children rowing towards our boat asking for goodies or any other offerings. This is a harmless practise they’ve developed since tourists started flocking their settlement. They are not beggars, so treat them with respect. Image: Naqiuddin
Image: Naqiuddin
To bad we didn’t have enough offering or time to spend with this Bajau community or else they could have demonstrated their ability to free dive for some fresh ocean catch. Image: Naqiuddin
Rowing back to the village. Image: Naqiuddin
Image: Naqiuddin
A Bajau family rowing towards their houseboat known as ‘lepa’ near Bodgaya Island. Image: Naqiuddin

Tour guide Muhammad Yuzlizham Yusof said that even today, the community still practises the barter system as a way to sell their catch in Semporna town.

“They don’t know how to count or speak the local language, but that has never been a problem. Their catch like fish, giant clams and crabs are exchanged for groceries like tapioca, cooking oil, sugar and coffee,” Yuzlizham said.

“Over the years, the Bajau adapted some modern perks like boat engines, and that’s when they started selling goods for money to buy petrol, among other things.

“As Semporna welcomes more international tourists, the Bajau selling seafood at the waterfronts have even picked up the basics of other languages like Mandarin and English.”

Before learning that cash can get them modern perks like boat engines, Bajau sea nomads used to barter their fresh catch for essential items like tapioca, cooking oil and sugar. Image: Naqiuddin

Sibuan Island – A Slice of Paradise

Next stop was Sibuan Island, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND I have ever set foot on. Every inch of the place looked exactly like a holiday poster — white sands, crystal clear waters and empty stretches of beach — simply perfect.

This is Sibuan Island. Simply beautiful. Image: Naqiuddin
Shots like this make a perfect ‘Monday blues’ post on Instagram. Image: Naqiuddin

Other than a small army post, the island is also home to several Bajau living on land. While others were still admiring the beach, I ventured into the village alone. Offering only smiles and ‘hellos’ without any generous offerings of snacks or cash proved futile. My long-awaited visit to get closer to the community was cut short as the villagers’ sharp stares started to get overwhelming. Hopefully I’ll get a much better chance next time.

Imagine being at the exact place where holiday posters are shot. Image: Naqiuddin
Bajau children hanging out under a hut on Sibuan Island. Image: Naqiuddin
Children fill their time with colouring books, few of the many offerings given by tourists. Image: Naqiuddin
Locals enjoying a game of beach volleyball on Sibuan Island as I venture into the Bajau Laut village on Sibuan Island. Image: Naqiuddin
A closer look inside the Sibuan Island Bajau village. Image: Naqiuddin
A Bajau family on their ‘lepa’ near Sibuan Island. Image: Naqiuddin

Asked about the stateless status of most Bajau sea nomads, Yuzlizham said most of the community members still practise the traditional way of life. National registration department officers would make visits to settlements to provide ‘cards’ to establish that the person lives on Sabah waters. While education is readily available for the children, the people simply choose to stick with tradition.

A child holds onto a rope of a speed boat at a jetty used by Bajau simply known as ‘Floating’ at Semporna Waterfront. Image: Naqiuddin
With fees between RM2 and RM4, these speedboats ferry locals to nearby islands. The ‘floating’ jetty only serves locals while visitors hop on boats the nearby ‘tourist jetty’. Image: Naqiuddin
Small boats lined at the ‘floating’ jetty. Image: Naqiuddin
Local Bajau children waiting for their ride at the ‘floating’ jetty. Because most Bajau still embrace the traditional way of life, a majority of their children are not sent to schools. Image: Naqiuddin
A Bajau family selling giant clams at the ‘floating’ jetty. A Tun Sakaran Marine Park officer told us a clam of that size is at least 50 years old and the marine park is one of the few rare places in the world that has seven of nine species of giant clams. In regard to conservation, the two main concerns involving the Bajau community today revolve around waste management and selling endangered wildlife to irresponsible tourists. Image: Naqiuddin

As we head back to the waterfront, Alexander took us closer to the colourful lepa boats. This time, the Bajau families greeted us with smiles — a perfect end to our island hopping trip.

A Bajau boy giving the thumbs up from his ‘lepa’ at Semporna Waterfront. Image: Naqiuddin
Image: Naqiuddin
Imagine living in a small ‘lepa’ like this family! Image: Naqiuddin

Later in the evening, the celebration continued as the stage was set for the Sangom Maglami-Lami, which featured cultural performances like the Igal-Igal dance and a beauty pageant to crown the next Bajau beauty queen.

One of the singers in Bajau attire belting out traditional tunes during one of the performances. Image: Naqiuddin
Beauty pageant contestants showcasing their dancing skills. Image: Naqiuddin
A performer dancing to a traditional Bajau number during the night’s festivities. Image: Naqiuddin

Lepa Parade and Regatta

The next morning, Semporna Waterfront brimmed with visitors wanting to catch the Lepa Parade and the traditional regatta.

Hundreds of colourful houseboats gather at Semporna Waterfront in celebration of the Regatta Lepa in Semporna. Image: Naqiuddin

The Fire and Rescue Department as well as Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) opened the event with an adrenaline-pumping performances that could certainly make a crook think twice about facing the full brunt of the law before messing in Sabah waters.

Visitors taking photos of a passing Fire and Rescue helicopter during the parade. Image: Naqiuddin
Esscom officers in action. Image: Naqiuddin
Visitors fill every inch of the venue to catch the parade and boat races. Image: Naqiuddin

Soon after, the boat racing event began where contestants from villages in and around Tawau vied for the winner’s trophy.

A replica of a bigger traditional ‘lepa’. The colourful sail called ‘sambulayang’ is not just limited to boats, but is also set in front of homes or venues to symbolise an official event like weddings and other celebrations. Image: Naqiuddin
After the event, we went for a tasty seafood spread at nearby Restoran Warisan in Kampung Tampi Tampi. Image: Naqiuddin
Houses on stilts in Kampung Tampi Tampi. Image: Naqiuddin

Things To See in Semporna and Tawau

While a number of visitors to Semporna come for the dive sites that’s practically one of the world’s best, it is said that divers cannot travel by air at least 24 hours after a dive. So what can you do for a day in Semporna and Tawau other than the islands and beaches?

1. Bukit Tengkorak

Keep that active lifestyle going by hiking up an ancient volcanic rock-shelter that once stood as the largest pottery-making factory in Southeast Asia during the Neolithic period.

Translated as ‘Skull Hill’, the hiking trail up this 500-foot-tall attraction is relatively easy depending on your fitness level — 610 steps of stairs to the top. Being an ancient volcanic site, not only are some of the plants different, you can even see massive volcanic rocks that have been around for millions of years. The peak rewards you with this beautiful grassland with sweeping views of Semporna town and surrounding islands including the Tun Sakaran Marine Park that looks like an old man asleep.

Hiking up Bukit Tengkorak. Unfortunately, my fitness level only got me over halfway through the hike. Take your time to get to peak and you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Semporna amid a lush grassland filled with ancient volcanic rocks. Image: Naqiuddin

Since my fitness level only allowed me to hike up just over halfway, you can search the Internet for pictures of the full view at the peak.

2. Tawau Hills Park

The locals call it Table as the park is located within a plantation that bears such name. A step inside Tawau Hills Park takes you back to a time that almost seems prehistoric when trees grew as tall as skyscrapers and leaves as massive as an elephant’s ear.

Venturing into Tawau Hills Park takes you back to a time that almost seems prehistoric. Image: Naqiuddin

This 28,000-hectare rainforest literally supplies water to Tawau and the Semporna peninsula as it is the source for at least seven major rivers.

Here you’ll find natural hot springs, cascading waterfalls and vibrant flora and fauna at every turn. Campsites are available for those who want a quick BBQ session or even stargazing at night. If you want to see more of these lush natural wonders, there are trekking packages that span three days to Maria, Lucia and Magdalena mountains where you may chance upon some unique wildlife like the sun bear, Sunda clouded leopard and pygmy elephant. If you want to trek to the mountains, book in advance to avoid disappointment. Get your slot by contacting Sabah Parks.

If time is not on your side, an hour at this park is more than enough to follow the trail to one of the tallest tropical trees in the world!

Tourism Malaysia officer Syafikh Errsyam Abu Bakar looking up the fifth tallest tropical tree in the world, the Seraya Kuning Siput standing at 88.4 metres. Image: Naqiuddin

Just like how the Bajau still fiercely observe their traditional way of life, Tawau and Semporna managed to maintain their natural wonders the destructive grip of modernisation.

I, for one, am glad that these places are still less travelled or even known to the world. Blame me for being selfish, but rampant development saw how the largest sea turtle and longest living reptile the Leatherback Sea Turtle left Terengganu’s Rantau Abang as its decades-old nesting Mecca. it would be a big loss to Malaysia if any of these untouched natural wonders and heritage in Sabah disappear once everything turns commercial.

This doesn’t mean you can’t travel here, just be respectful to the nature — only leave behind footprint, not garbage; don’t simply touch or eat ‘exotic’ creatures (noob divers who ‘accidentally’ touched or stepped on live corals or tourists eating giant clams); and animal rides for the sake of experience. This applies to any destination you travel to. The locals will sell anything as long as there’s demand. Stop the demand and irresponsible habits, and we’ll be able to enjoy a holiday in paradise for generations to come.

GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau. Book your seats now at wishes to thank Tourism Malaysia for its invaluable support in producing this story.

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Written by Asyraf Naqiuddin

Asyraf believes there’s a story anywhere you turn that could inspire readers around the world. With a penchant for high-powered motorcycles, he hopes to one day get back in the saddle and cover the globe on two wheels.

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